Don’t I know by now that folk see their sins in the way they choose? There’s always a reason as to why selfishness is not really selfish and crimes are honest and waiting safely by while somefolk else is killed is really the more courageous choice.
3.8/5 paper planes
What’s This Book About?
Genre: Alternative historical fiction (Tudor period)
Publication: 23rd July 2020 (UK hardback)
Synopsis: A Sin Eater hears the final private confessions of the dying, eats their sins as a funeral rite, and so guarantees their souls access to heaven. Stained by the sins they are obliged to consume, the Sin Eater is shunned and silenced, doomed to live in exile at the edge of town.
Recently orphaned May Owens is just fourteen, and has never considered what it might be like to be so ostracized; she’s more concerned with where her next meal is coming from. When she’s arrested for stealing a loaf of bread, however, and subsequently sentenced to become a Sin Eater, finding food is suddenly the last of her worries.
It’s a devastating sentence, but May’s new invisibility opens new doors. And when first one then two of the Queen’s courtiers suddenly grow ill, May hears their deathbed confessions – and begins to investigate a terrible rumour that is only whispered of amid palace corridors.
Content warnings: Rape of a minor; mentions of infanticide and rape; animal abuse; death of animals and humans; torture; violence, injury, blood and other bodily fluids; branding
What I Thought:
‘The Sin Eater’ is certainly a page-turner, both for the murder mystery wrapped up in court intrigue and for my interest in May, our compelling protagonist.
The book takes place in some sort of alternate historical setting during the later years of the Tudor period, which was an intriguing choice. This fantasy, vaguely medieval English land of ‘Angland’ is ruled over by a ‘Queen Bethany’ (loosely based upon Elizabeth I, I believe) and follows a reimagined version of Anglicanism (I think). Meanwhile the rest of the world seems to be the same as ours, for example the Jews, Hebrew and Greek languages, and the Norman prince.
The Angland setting and the role of Sin Eaters felt quite realistic, being especially convincing when Campisi subtly kneads familiar myths and legends to fit in with the cultural figure of the Sin Eater. For example, Eve is essentially the Devil, the witch in Hansel and Gretel’s story is an old Sin Eater, and Jack and Jill feature an Eating after Jack’s (fatal) fall – an Eating being the ritual consumption of foods symbolic of myriad sins, laid atop one’s coffin. The world-building was generally done quite well, though on occasion there was some exposition-heavy dialogue. The quasi-English setting was absorbing, so sometimes it was a bit jarring to be reminded of the ‘regular’ historical setting outside of Angland. I’m still not entirely sure why Campisi decided to do a semi-fantastical historical narrative instead of a Tudor period alternate history or creating a totally fictional country.
May was a well-written character with an arc centred around regaining agency in a world that has repeatedly stripped her of it.
Mayhap freedom is being able to be more than one thing…I think May is autistic too (I found a Goodreads Q&A about this) which I don’t think is a particularly common character representation in historical fiction/fantasy, let alone in the protagonist. Speaking of diversity, one of the supporting characters, Paul, reads like he might be gay and I believe a couple of characters appearing near the end are gay too. Just a gut feeling. As May would say, ‘The belly knows.’
Mayhap freedom is choosing for yourself. Even if the choices are piss-poor.
This story is gritty and doesn’t shy away from showing some of the darker underbelly of society and court dealings, so don’t expect any fanciful medieval romance here. I actually liked that there wasn’t a love interest – May’s got a pretty full plate (literally) running around trying to fulfil her Sin Eater duties and catch one (or more) murderers. I will say though that there is romantic potential, if Campisi decides to write a sequel!
Following the buildup of the murder mystery, the ending felt a little anti-climactic and over too fast, but on the bright side I definitely didn’t guess who the killer was. I like open endings, but if this is a standalone then I feel a little unsatisfied. There’s a lot of plot thread still left unspooled and several characters who I’d like to see again, so hopefully one day Campisi may revisit the Sin Eater’s world and tell another story…
Thank you to NetGalley and Pan Macmillan for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.